By Will Ford
During the summer in the eastern U.S. city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, my father lies in a hammock, gin and tonic in hand, waiting for hummingbirds. He has often struggled to attract them to the back yard.
Tapichalaca Reserve, in southern Ecuador, would be heaven for him.
In the cloud forest here in Ecuador, armies of hummingbirds dart between feeders and the woods next to a nature lodge. Their beating wings are so loud they sound more like bees. When they zoom past, you can feel the wind, and, in the mornings before they’ve been fed, they’ll land on your outstretched arms or search for nectar inside your nose.
The scene resembles my father’s hummingbird utopia, although he might not like the cool, damp weather. But the patio has a roof, and inside there’s a fireplace and a cozy living room where lodge guests congregate after hiking through the cloud forest.
The lodge belongs to the Jocotoco Foundation, named after the rare Jocotoco antpitta, a bird whose discovery in the late ’90s inspired the organization’s creation. The foundation acted quickly, purchasing land to protect threatened species found in what is now Tapichalaca, one of four Jocotoco-managed areas with a tourist lodge. The other six reserves are primarily used for conservation and research and can be visited during the day.
My girlfriend, Jessie, has been living in Tapichalaca’s researchers’ quarters this year, studying the golden-plumed parakeet, another rare bird. Jessie met me in Quito and we flew south to Loja, where we caught a bus that blared Spanish-language pop music as it whipped through the mountains to Tapichalaca. About 385 kilometres south of the equator, the reserve spans 3480-plus hectares in the Andes and reaches 11,000 feet (3.3km) above sea level. More than 300 bird species, 13 of which are globally threatened, live in the mountain rain forest among 130 endemic plant species. Ninety percent of these plants are threatened, and, in 2004, the rare Bomarea longipes vine was discovered after being presumed lost for 130 years.
I helped Jessie with fieldwork. Every five days, she monitors newly hatched parakeet chicks in forest nest boxes. Jocotoco has participated in a widespread conservation campaign over the past seven years to protect the birds, whose primary home, the wax palm, was harvested by Ecuadorans for Palm Sunday. Expanding public awareness and building nest boxes has helped, and the parakeets — along with the Jocotoco antpitta — are one of Tapichalaca’s main bird specialties. Others include the jaylike white-capped tanager and colorful gray-breasted mountain-toucan. Bigger mammals, like the spectacled bear and woolly mountain tapir, roam the mountains as well.
I quickly learned that my support role would involve getting wet. Jessie also had help from a volunteer, a young Swiss woman named Manuela, as well as her usual support from Tapichalaca’s park guards. I was to fill the most mundane of roles: umbrella holder. There is rarely a day in Tapichalaca without rain, and the weather can change in an instant. Jessie, Manuela and Ramiro — a park guard with amazing dexterity in hauling a ladder through thick cloud forest — did the heavy fieldwork. When I was called upon, I crouched to hold the umbrella over the chicks as Jessie and Manuela took measurements. I got soaked but the chicks stayed dry. My role was a familiar one, in which birds beat me out for Jessie’s attention.
The parakeets had me on looks. Some were beginning to sprout radiant emerald feathers from their gray fuzz, and the adults, squawking in a high pitch from the canopy, shone in brilliant green and yellow. High in the Andean mountains, in a small opening of cow pasture in the forest, they called out as thick fog rolled up and down the mountains, showering our hodgepodge international team with rain. The fog, damp and cold, was mystical, enveloping the forest in a quiet peace that calms the reserve throughout the day.
Tourist visitors to Tapichalaca can’t go on nest checks, but bird-watching is welcomed. Everything else I saw was par for the course for an average visitor. Like many travelers to the reserve, we spent most of our time hiking Tapichalaca’s trails and birding. One day, when the mist cleared and the sun shone on the top of Cerro Tapichalaca peak, I decided to stay behind in the hammock to enjoy the view and weather. But mostly, our hikes in Tapichalaca ended with a book and hot chocolate in the lodge, joking with the park guards, or passing around pictures of a puma caught by one of Jessie’s trap cameras.
We left the Tapichalaca cold only once in three weeks, catching a bus on the side of the road at the lodge’s entrance, back to Loja. We changed buses and headed to Piñas, about five hours northwest, in the direction of the coast, winding our way through the Andes en route to Buenaventura Reserve, another Jocotoco property. Piñas means “pineapples” in Spanish, and everyone had a different story about the tree’s paradoxical absence in the region.
In Buenaventura, the temperature hovered in the low 80s, and there was both consistent sun and rain. When it poured, it poured with a deafening serenity. I sat on a couch on a covered patio, sheltered from the storms, watching the humid skies open over the hillsides. Hummingbirds stormed feeders with a ferocity that made the Tapichalaca group look timid.
On our first afternoon in Buenaventura, Jessie and I went for a walk with Leo, a park guard, who identified dozens of obscure whistles and tweets emanating from the forest. He brought us to the reserve’s long-wattled umbrellabird lek — “a place where males display their sexiness to females,” Jessie explained to me — to see the show.
After a few minutes, a large male arrived. A trunk of feathers dangled below the beak of the black bird, but he held the display for later. We peered through the forest at him for a while as howler monkeys bellowed in the background. I retired to the patio early, retreating to a book, hummingbirds, a rufous-headed chachalaca wandering the railing and a heavy thunderstorm. Jessie came back a few hours later, rain-drenched, with an expression of delightful glee I’ve come to know well. She had glimpsed a few more lifers.
That night, we sat down to dinner with a few bird researchers, and I listened in on the conversation as it grew dark. At the table, they discussed a variety of mysteries in bird biology in Spanish, English, German and their Latin taxonomical names.
On one of my last days in Tapichalaca, we awoke early to see the Jocotoco antpitta at its breakfast site, where Franco, Ramiro’s older brother, also a park guard, has trained the birds to feed on worms each morning. Ramiro led the way, hiking through a soft rain and fog until we reached a small shelter for viewing the Jocotocos. As I caught my breath, Ramiro scattered a few worms next to the path. A family of Jocotoco birds scampered out to eat. Tall and slender with long blue legs, scurrying through the forest floor suits them better than flying. They ran in spurts, stopping to look around every few feet before lowering their heads and darting a few more steps. We sat there, grinning. Ramiro watched them as though they were a family of goofy nephews.
When I left, Jessie bought a beach umbrella to protect the parakeets from rain during nest checks. A more colorful, inanimate object had replaced me, but I wasn’t offended. The parakeets would be dry, and their feathers were growing more spectacular by the day.
Credit: Stuff, www.stuff.co.nz